BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
Are you as smart as an elementary or middle school student?
You may be able to answer any division problem thrown your way, but soon just knowing the correct answer may not be enough for students to satisfy their teachers.
Common Core State Standards in mathematics will begin to take effect this year and could fundamentally change how teachers teach math.
Now, all students -- even the math whizzes -- might have to struggle with the problems to gain a deeper concept of not just what the answer is, but also why the answer is what it is.
Director of Greene County Schools Dr. Vicki Kirk estimated that only 30 to 40 percent of adults today truly understand the concepts behind fractions.
It's time for that to change, she said.
In order to make that change, however, the state is looking for entirely new ways to teach new standards and has turned to the same curriculum that is being adopted across the nation -- Common Core.
By 2014-2015, the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) will no longer exist, and a new test, Partnership for Assessment for Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), will take its place.
Meanwhile, however, teachers will slowly filter out the traditional state performance indicators (SPIs) previously used, effectively narrowing the curriculum tested by the TCAP.
The state will replace these with fewer but deeper standards that will be tested through Constructed Response Assessments.
Constructed Response, according to materials Kirk provided, will take place three times each school year, and will not affect student grades or teacher/system evaluations in this coming year.
In the 2012-2013 school year, a couple of Common Core Standards will replace several traditional SPIs in each grade level for third through eighth grade.
"In third grade the focus is multiplication and division, in fourth and fifth grade it is fractions, in sixth and seventh grade the focus is ratios, proportions and expressions. The focus standards all lead to the eighth-grade focus: functions," according to the documents.
This narrowing of standards and deepening of understanding highlights three key areas noted in the documents:
* Focus: narrowing and deepening the scope of how teachers teach math;
* Coherence: connecting concepts to eliminate disjointedness between mathematics principles; and,
* Rigor: students' ability to carry out the task with skill and an understanding of the concept while applying it.
Actually implementing this change may have had some teachers a bit wide-eyed at first, but several days of training later, they are expressing confidence and even excitement about the change.
In Tennessee's 1st Congressional District, training began three weeks ago and ends today as hundreds of teachers from around the area have filtered through classrooms at Greeneville High School.
Greeneville Director of Schools Dr. Linda Stroud said it was a privilege to host the training.
"I think Greeneville teachers are as ready or more prepared as any other teachers in the state," Stroud said Wednesday in an interview.
"It's not only a change in learning but, for many, in teaching methods. There's been dedicated, serious work on the part of our teachers this summer."
Kirk expressed similar confidence, saying that teachers and principals from every school in both Greeneville and Greene County's systems chose to participate by selecting small teams to represent their school.
Jinny Myers was a part of Baileyton Elementary School's training team on Wednesday.
A seventh grade math teacher, Myers admitted that it will be a big change after 16 years of teaching math a different way.
In the classroom, this change will include handing the students a problem and asking them to try to solve it without prior direction.
After several minutes, students will repeat the process in a small group, sharing each of their ideas to solve the problem and then presenting them in front of the class.
"It's going to be challenging, but it's going to be exciting," Myers said.
"I think it's also going to be very engaging for the students. Students are going to take a lot of ownership in their learning."
The math is still the same, she noted -- it is the focus that is changing to become student-centered.
"All of them may struggle," she added. "Even the strong math students may struggle with this."
That struggle could build confidence in those students that previously straggled behind, Myers said.
MORE CREATIVITY, ACCOUNTABILITY
Tallye Gass, a teacher at Greeneville Middle School, has taught for eight years but is coming up on her first year of teaching math, something she sees as a possible advantage over teachers who are facing this as a big change in their methods.
"We have been given the tools, and it's up to us to take them back to the classroom and implement them. I feel like I have been given what I need," Gass said.
"Going in [to the training], we were all thinking, 'What is this going to be?', and it turned out to be probably the best training I've had as an educator since I got out of college."
"It was in depth, it covered what it needed to cover, but it also presented it in a way that was not scary," she added.
In fact, she indicated, this new method of teaching opens up math as a place to be less about the formulas and more about thinking about things the way that makes sense for each student.
"I think that it's going to give more creativity in the classroom," she said.
Jennifer Moore, a math coach in Johnson City who was selected to participate in the Common Core training, noted that classroom management and teaching children to work in small groups will be a key part of this process.
"Really holding [students] accountable will be big," she said.
PARENTS, BE PREPARED
Meanwhile, it's not just the teachers and the students that will be feeling the effects, many noted.
"It's extremely rigorous. Parents need to understand that it's a huge change," Stroud cautioned, adding, however, that she has faith in the teachers and students.
Kirk noted that parents could see their children struggling through some problems as a normal part of the process to deeper, conceptual learning.
For Gass, the entire concept is one of pure excitement.
"As a parent ... I really think down the road -- once we get past the learning curve -- for our kids, it's going to be phenomenal," she said enthusiastically.
"It's going to be such a part of their daily conversation. It's going to be great; I have high hopes!"